While Hugo’s Hernani, produced by the Comédie Française in 1830, is always accorded the bragging rights as the first successful French Romantic drama, it is in fact Dumas’s Henri III et sa cour (1829) that deserves the pride of place.
The Dumas play, performed in the same theater with some of the same cast, was a major triumph, and it’s full of some of the same elements as Hernani and later Romantic drama (period costumes, over-the-top rhetoric combined with everyday language, violent stage business, humor mixed in with grief).
But Hernani gets the acclaim thanks to three factors:
a) Hugo had proclaimed a theoretical justification for a new drama in his famous Preface to the unstaged (and unstageable Cromwelll Dumas notes in a brief foreword to his play that he has no theoretical pretentions, leaving that to others.
b) Hernani was in verse, in alexandrines yet, a direct attack on Corneille and Racine territory, while Henri III was in prose.
c) Hernani’s opening night witnessed a famous donnybrook between factions in the audience, the upholders of Classicism and Romanticism; Henri III, on the other hand, was acclaimed from the opening act on – including the enthusiasm of the soon-to-be King Louis-Philippe.
Dumas, who had a major theatrical career later eclipsed by his historical novels, was actually a pretty good playwright. Henri III is a little rough dramatically (he was just a rank beginner), but it has some very gripping moments, especially that the scene where the duke of Guise physically abuses his wife into writing the letter that will trap her lover, Saint-Mégrin. This scene, which Dumas in his memoirs tells us caused a palpable sensation. In eth audience, was a move away from the lack of direct onstage action of tragic and sentimental plays of almost two centuries of French drama. Moreover, except for the lover-hero. These are not the noble gentlemen of the heroic era – the king is a weak fool, under the thumb of his mother Catherine De’ Medici, Guise a monster, and the gentlemen of the court, vain fops.
The play is indebted to Othello, a sensation (both cheered and hooted) when English actors led by Kean visited Paris a few years earlier, showing a piece, albeit in a foreign language, that had been seen in the Rossini opera version or, worse, in the denatured adaptation of Ducis – in which, for example, the handkerchief gets replaced by a diadem. (In 1830, Vigny would produce a more literal – Romantic – translation.)
As with Othello, in Henri III a handkerchief is a key element in the jealousy of the husband, though it must be said that Guise is more an Iago than an Othello. The death of Saint=Mégrin (the lover, albeit offstage, resembles Iago’s treacherous attack on Cassio. And Guise’s confrontation with his wife resembles the strangling of Desdemona, though in the Dumas play, the heroine just faints away at the end. This happens as her husband calls out the window to the assassins who have all but killed Saint-Mégrin, throwing them the tell-tale handkerchief to strangle him:
Eh bien, serre-lui la gorge avec ce mouchoir ; la mort lui sera plus douce ; il est aux armes de la duchesse de Guise. :Henri III is full of gothic/Romantic trappings: locked doors, astrology, passionate love at first sight, meetings of conspirators, disguises, implacable revenge, a magic talisman. Most of these elements are rearranged and added to in Hernani.
(Well then, stop up his throat with this handkerchief; death will be all the sweeter for him; it bears the arms of the duchess of Guise/)
One side issue in the play is the nature of the king’s “favorites”, the elegant young gentlemen who attend him. We know from historical accounts that these favorites, at least some of them, were lovers of the king, who was probably bisexual. And that was well known, if on the sly, by Dumas’s contemporaries. On fact, the censor objected that parents would have difficult time explaining to their innocent children what a “favorite” was. The play presents Henri and his friends as fops and dandies, but no hint of anything beyond that. In his later novel, La Reine Margot, the ambiguous sexuality of the Valois court is a little more in the open.